On The Radio- Testing for bacteria in drinking water


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Cold Drinking Water (linda dillard/ flickr)

Kasey Dresser | February 12, 2018

This week’s segment looks at a new invention from the University of Bath that tests for bacteria in drinking water. 

Transcript:

A breakthrough invention at the University of Bath could help millions stay safe from polluted drinking water.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Researchers in Bath, England have developed a device that can determine dangerous levels of bacteria in drinking water. The small invention resembles a square slip of paper, and was inspired by litmus paper— used to measure the acidity levels of water.

The new device uses a microbial fuel cell, embedded in a patch of ink on the paper, to detect bacteria in drinking water. The fuel cell emits a constant electric signal, which changes when it comes in contact with bacteria in water.

The next step for researchers is to find a way to use that small change in the electric current to inform the user about the water’s pollution levels.

According to the World Health Organization, 423 million people globally drink from unprotected wells and springs, and an estimated 159 million people drink from lakes, ponds, rivers. Many of these population have no access to analytic tools, and have no way to measure the safety of their drinking water.

The paper, once fully produced, is estimated to cost around a dollar per slip.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Simple way to recycle methane discovered


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Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

Women more likely to be affected by and act on climate change


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Women and children are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses that are becoming more common due to climate change. (Janet Mailbag/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 8, 2018

During a recent speech at Georgetown University, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out that women are disproportionately affected by climate change worldwide.

Research from several sources back up this claim. Discussing global desertification due to drought and intense heat waves, Clinton said, “I would say that particularly for women…they will bear the brunt of looking for the food, looking for the firewood, looking for the place to migrate to when all of the grass is finally gone.”

The gendered effects of climate change extend beyond communities in developing nations, however. Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Fund point out that two-thirds of those jobs lost after Hurricane Katerina in New Orleans were lost by women. Job creation during the rebuilding periods following natural disasters are primarily in the construction industry and go almost exclusively to men. As a result, 83 percent of single mothers were not able to return to New Orleans following the hurricane.

The changing climate poses unique risks to women’s health as well. Increasingly frequent and intense heat waves can cause low birth weights among pregnant women. Women are also fourteen times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. Researchers link this to insufficient access to information and warnings as well as a difference in women’s ability to cope with such events.

As Clinton put it, women “bear the brunt” of a changing climate. Perhaps that’s why women in political positions of power are more likely than their male counterparts to sign off on treaties that combat climate change.

Perrin Ireland is a science reporter for the Natural Resources Defense Fund. She said, “Women play critical roles in our communities, and our voices must be heard for climate action. In order to have a resilient future, for the thriving of our communities, women must have a seat at the table.”

Trump administration works to reverse over 65 environmental policies


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The federal government no longer requires new infrastructure projects to meet flood protection guidelines. (Melissa Galvez/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2018

Since taking office about a year ago, the Trump administration has moved to eliminate over 65 environmental regulations and policies, according to a report from the New York Times Climate Team.

The report aggregated data from climate deregulation policy trackers from the environmental law programs at Harvard University and Columbia University to come up with a total of 67 environmental regulations that the administration has sought to rollback. Reporters split the policies into three categories: those that have already been overturned, those that are on their way to being overturned and those whose fate is unclear due of court actions.  The largest category of 33 rules are those that have already been reversed.

There are a few among them that are most relevant for Iowans. First, the administration has reversed an Obama-era regulation that required federal buildings and infrastructure projects to be constructed in accordance with higher flood protection standards. Under this rule, new projects in flood plains would have had to be either elevated or flood proofed at a minimum of two feet above the 100-year floodplain. Recent research from the University of Iowa’s Flood Center found that as the climate continues to warm, the risk of flooding in Iowa and the northern U.S. is increasing.

The administration has also opted to reject the Environmental Projection Agency’s research on a particular pesticide and allow for its further use. Following the EPA’s study of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which found to pose a risk for fetal brain and nervous system development, the Obama administration proposed a ban of the pesticide. Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt argued that further study of the chemical is needed prior to a ban.

The list of environmental policies reversed by the administration goes on, and just three have been successfully reinstated after environmental groups sued the Trump administration.

The advantages of geothermal energy


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Geothermal energy is another viable–but unheard of–source of renewable power (shutterstock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu| February 6th, 2018

Jim Turner, an operating officer with Australia’s energy company Controlled Thermal Resources, wants more people to know about Geothermal Energy–an often unheard-of source of renewable energy using the Earth’s core heat as its main source.

10 feet or so beneath the Earth’s surface, the ground stays at a near-constant temperature of 50 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a few different ways to use this temperature to generate electricity; the most common method is to siphon water from just under the surface and create steam to power turbines. Some companies use the heat itself to create a “heat pump” that helps regulate the temperatures in buildings.

Most geothermal energy sites are located in the West of the United States–places with remote stretched of hot desert where the ground is easier to dig into.

The Earth at Western desert sites also satisfy three necessary conditions for ground to actually hold its heat and become a candidate for geothermal farming:it’s hot, wet rock, with enough space and fractures throughout that allow water to flow beneath the surface.

The nation’s Energy Department recently established FORGE, an effort to increase the number of geothermal sites in the United States. Geothermal energy is traditionally overlooked and underfunded, but with some combined effort this natural resource can help continue to reduce our carbon footprint.

 

 

On The Radio- Waste Free Living


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Jars (LuAnn Snawder Photography/flickr)

Kasey Dresser | February 5, 2018

This week’s segment looks at a company in New York that focuses on making waste free living accessible to everyone. 

Transcript:

A recent waste free living trend has emerged and 2 NYU graduates are aiming to make the lifestyle accessible to everyone.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Lauren Singer and Daniel Silverstein started an online company to make waste-free living easier and more accessible. The average American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash everyday. Singer and Silverstein believe that given an easy alternative everybody would be in favor of reducing their own waste.

Singer has kept all of her trash from the last 4 years in a 16 oz mason jar. She started by making her own vegan, and organic laundry detergent and runs a blog called Trash is for Tossers. Silverstein uses scraps from other companies and is the creator his own line of recycled clothing. Together, their company, PackageFree, sells environmentally friendly home, bathroom, clothing, and beauty products.

To start waste reduction in your own life, they recommend 5 simple steps: The first is replacing your plastic grocery bags with reusable shopping totes. Next use reusable stainless steel water bottles and reusable silverware that you take on the go. When ordering a drink at a restaurant, ask for it without a plastic straw. And finally use biodegradable toothbrushes instead of plastic ones.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Coal plants closing at unprecedented rate


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A coal plant spews pollutants on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. (Photo Kent/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 2, 2018

Coal’s role in the U.S. energy picture is rapidly shrinking according to a report from the independent, non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:

  • 80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
  • 64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
  • 34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas

Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.

The driving force behind coal’s decline is primarily economic. Natural gas is cheaper than the dirty fuel, and new research found that newly constructed wind and solar plants are more cost effective than new coal plants.

The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,

“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”